On Wednesday, October 24, 2012, some friends and I met at Jupiter Pizza in Berkeley and then went to see Camille Paglia speaking on her latest book Glittering Images at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.
The auditorium was almost packed. Paglia spoke for about 90 minutes, answered one question for about 10 minutes more, then signed books for an hour or so. She was her usual charismatic self: a fast-talking, hand-waving, manic blur of energy; a cascade of insights, polemic barbs, witticisms, and warmth; a fusion of academic discourse and stand-up comedy. Even the Berkeley audience was moved to laughter and applause at her barbs against Marxism, feminism, political correctness, and postmodernism. (“Berkeley is the worst!”)
The first part of her talk summarized the Introduction to Glittering Images, and the rest was devoted to a slide show of and commentary on 33 images (3 of the same piece) that were not included in the book. (The book would have been much improved if she had included most of them.)
The images included the famous Minoan “snake goddess” statue, a fragment of an Amarna portrait of Queen Tiye, a small Roman copy of Phidias’s colossal chryselephantine statue of Athena, and three stunning Roman portraits. The Minoan and Roman images would have better rounded out her discussion of Antiquity, but the Amarna fragment is certainly not the best choice for a single Egyptian sculpture, and classical Greece is already over-represented, so the Phidias copy would be overkill.
In the book, the Middle Ages are represented by a single page from the Book of Kells. In the lecture, she discussed Cimbaue’s (c. 1240–1302) monumental Crucifixion from Florence’s Basilica di Santa Croce (plus two heartbreaking images of the damage done by the 1966 flood); exterior and interior views of a rose window at Notre Dame de Paris, plus a gargoyle; and Duccio’s (c. 1255–1260–c. 1318–1319), “Maestà with Twenty Angels and Nineteen Saints,” a monumental altarpiece in Siena.
As for the Renaissance, Paglia left out two drawings by Da Vinci and Michelangelo’s image of the fall and expulsion from Paradise from the Sistine Chapel. These would have certainly improved the coverage of the Renaissance, but still she did not treat anything from the Northern Renaissance.
Her coverage of the 17th century would have been improved by including Rubens’ “The Three Graces.” Her treatment of the Rococo would have been enhanced by Boucher’s portrait of Madame de Pompadour. Her discussion of the 19th century would have been deepened by Alma-Tadema’s “The Triumph of Titus,” an example of the academic painting against which the impressionists and other avant-garde schools were in revolt.
As with the published book, the discarded images listed heavily toward Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and 20th century modernism: Degas, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse, Henry Moore, Dalí, Rothko, Oldenburg, etc. The book certainly would have been improved by including the Van Gogh and Dalí paintings but not the others.
Quibbles about image selection aside, I found Paglia’s commentary always illuminating. I particularly appreciated her meticulous, un-PC attention to fashion, which she sees as a cult of beauty rather than a form of oppression.
Even though Glittering Images is the least of her works, Camille Paglia is a national treasure, one of the few contemporary writers whom I would call a genius. She will surely be making other appearances around the country to promote her new book. Seek her out, for a taste of the education we are all missing.
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